Becoming a Friend of God

I’m preaching at Simpson-Hamline United Methodist Church this Sunday while the Pastor is on vacation.  Bill preached last Sunday, and he started his sermon by singing “My Tribute” in his wonderfully deep and resonate baritone, then went on to give a powerful testimony about God’s saving grace.  So he set the bar pretty high for me to follow up this week!

The text I’ve chosen, John 15: 12-17, is a part of Jesus’ farewell discussion with his disciples.  I’m focusing on verse 14-15, where Jesus calls his disciples friends.  He no

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longer calls them (us) servants, he now calls us his friends. I’ve been fascinated by my deep study of this text.  One of the things that happens when you delve deeply into a text to understand it more fully — I call it “deep sea diving”– you come up with many treasures, usually more than you can recount effectively in one sermon (although many preachers are too inclined to try). So don’t worry, if you come to Simpson-Hamline this Sunday (service begins at 10 am)  this blog isn’t usurping my sermon. The reason I’m sharing this with you now is that I really haven’t been able to focus on anything else that I want to share here, so I decided to stop trying and just let you know what’s on my mind.

The other thing I’ve been doing this week is reading comments from a LinkedIn group, “Interfaith Professionals,” where comments  are being posted by persons from different faiths on the question “Why does God let people suffer?”  The responses are interesting, as you might expect.  People wrestle with this question a lot, and it has caused many to challenge the goodness and/or the reality of God.

All of this brings me to the question for today:  If Jesus — God — is really our friend, why do we still have to suffer?  Since we understand that God is all powerful and can do anything, then why would God-our-friend ever allow pain and difficulties into our lives? Why doesn’t God just step in and stop whatever it is–all the time?  Why wouldn’t God save the lives of many good and God-believing people from the horrible typhoon that is hitting the Philippines right now? Wouldn’t God stop a Christian woman from being raped or tortured? Wouldn’t our friend Jesus always carry us through the storm, away from harm, as the above picture depicts?

Many of us know from personal experience and testimonies from others that God does intervene, God does save and God still works miracles in this world.  But that does not mean that we won’t ever have to suffer, because we will. And we have no way of knowing when or why God will save some and not others or when the storms will come into our lives and we will find ourselves suffering.

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What kind of friend is someone who has the power to save us from pain and sorrow and doesn’t do it?

I believe the best kind of friend.  Not because God wants to us to suffer–I believe that God cries right along with us–but because God wants us to be better people than we would be without suffering. We could never understand what it means to have love and compassion if we weren’t required, from time to time, to open our hearts to others who are living in or going through difficulties.  We’d never know how important it is to have friends unless we had a need to lean on someone else every once in awhile–and that includes our friend God!

Humanity grows intellectually, deepens spiritually and gains wisdom from searching for the causes of suffering and figuring out how to relieve them.  So that’s the job that we’re given by the challenge of human suffering–to wrestle with the things that cause suffering and fix them.  That’s what people are called to do, and it involves everything from helping people to experience the God of love to researching the causes of diseases, from offering a meal to a homeless person to enacting legislation to create affordable housing and living wages, from being a friend to an at-risk child to working to overcome poverty and to dismantle for-profit prison systems. The added benefit is that these are the kind of works that make life truly meaningful for us.

That’s the call of God on all of us, all of humanity, to use all that we are to help each other– hearts that care, minds that study, hands that help, strength that endures and souls that understand the importance of rejoicing through it all. When we do these things, we’re helping to accomplish God’s purposes in this world, and that’s when we become friends of God.  You see, friendship is a two-way street. You can’t really have a friend unless you are a friend.  Sooo….you want Jesus to be your friend???

Angels vs. Demons

Our country is going through a really rough time right now.  So much angst in our Nation’s Capitol: The House of Representatives’ attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act by refusing to pass a budget, resulting in an historically destructive shutting down of the federal government, the looming debt ceiling battle, which portends more of the same,  and the mayhem caused by people with mental illnesses–the woman who tried to drive her car onto the White House grounds because she lost her job and the man who used legally obtained weapons of mass destruction to kill innocent people in the Navy Yard.

I’m convinced that all of this is nothing less than an epic battle in the war between angels and demons.  What?  Did I really say that in such a public space???  Yes.  I did.  We are witnesses to a battle over the soul of our country.  Isn’t that what heavenly battles are always about, saving souls?

And the thing is, most of the humans who are being used to wage this battle think they are the good guys–believing they’re on the side of the angels, knowing that they’re fighting against the demons.  (I say most of them, because I know there are some folks, at the highest levels and most secretive places, who know that they are not angels.)  But most folks caught up In fights like this think that their side is right, and that makes them think they’re the good guys. So we need to figure out who really are the good guys.  Are we on the side of the angels or the demons?

One way to figure this out is to examine our behavior in the battle. When we find ourselves doing things that good guys don’t do, we can’t really be the good guys anymore, can we? Like when we find ourselves feeling it’s okay to cheat in order to get our way or thinking it’s okay to take away somebody else’s right to vote to keep our positions of power.  Another thing to examine is how we feel about the other side in this battle, like when we find ourselves being driven by hate rather than logic (did you see all those people who ‘chose’ the Affordable Care Act over Obamacare?) or when when we find ourselves thinking that all those people must be evil, even when we don’t know them.

Another way to determine who’s side we’re really on is to examine our priorities. Have we chosen the side we’re on because we want our lives to be more comfortable, regardless of what it means to the rest of the people? According to my reading of the bible, when our side takes the position that is most harmful to the poor, we are not the good guys. This is the most important point for me.

In Luke’s version of the sermon on the mount, Jesus pours out blessings on the poor (not just the poor in spirit, like in Matthew’s version). As theologian R. Alan Culpepper tells us, Luke was doing just what he intended to do, to make clear that Jesus came to “overturn every conventional expectation of this world” by pronouncing blessings on those who were the outcasts of society.”  Jesus made radical statements about altering the ways of the world, and when we pay close attention to God’s preference for the poor, we find it all throughout the bible. How many times do we see God protecting the weaker from the stronger, the poor from the rich and powerful, using the lowly and not the one the world favored?  LIke when God saved the Hebrew children who had been enslaved by mighty Pharoah.  Or when God helped little David defeat the Giant Goliath.  We hear Hannah singing that the Lord raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap to sit them with princes.  We hear Mary sing that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Over and over again, we see God helping out those who are at the mercy of the rich and powerful.

Yes, when our side is the side of the rich and powerful, taking positions that will be harmful to the poor, we better watch out, because that’s not the side of the angels.  And God’s angels are always the good guys– and always more powerful than demons.

Angels? When you stop to think about it, in todays world angels are most often depicted as either sweet, little babies or gentle looking women with beautiful wings and harps.  And demons….whew!  They’re always depicted as powerfully frightening.  I don’t know how angels got to be so sweet and innocent looking in our minds, but we need to know that angels are way more powerful than demons.  Our bible tells us that over and over again. It was the demons who sent the giant Goliath to intimidate and kill the Hebrew children, but it was God’s angels who directed the rock from David’s slingshot so that it landed precisely where it needed to land. In the story of Esther, it was demons who used King Xerxes’ assistant Haman to get the king to sign an edict to kill all the Hebrews, but it was the angels who made Esther look particularly charming when she put her life on the line to go to the king, who couldn’t help but agree with whatever she asked him to do. And it was the demons working through people who put Jesus up on that cross–you know the outcome of that battle!

God’s angels are way more powerful than demons. The angels always win. Always.  So we must make sure that when the angels and demons are fighting for a soul–including the soul of a nation– that we’re on the right side of the battle. Jesus didn’t come just to turn the world’s priorities upside down, he came to turn them right-side up, back to where God always intended them to be.

May God’s will be done.

 

Disturb Us, O Lord

Someone posted on Facebook this reading of the Prayer of Sir Francis Drake:

Boat-In-A-Storm

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

Beautiful, isn’t it?  Thought provoking.  This wonderful prayer has been reposted and used over and over by many.  You can find it all over the web.  I decided to make it a topic of this week’s blog, but when I did some research on Sir Francis Blake, I changed my mind.  You see, he was a great explorer, but he was also a slaver and a pirate, forcibly making slaves of West Africans (I can’t help but wonder if he used that castle in Ghana that I visited) and raiding Spanish ships to steal their wealth.  He was lauded for this, and knighted. Blake even “excommunicated” his ship’s chaplain for suggesting that Blake was wrong for beheading his co-commander Thomas Doughty. I couldn’t help but wonder if the preacher was the one who gave Blake this wonderful prayer!

When I found out all of this, I thought I wouldn’t post the prayer.  I couldn’t help but think that Blake was using this prayer to lead him to further “adventures” of enslaving people and stealing their lands, claiming them in the name of England. I did not want to join you or me in those kind of thoughts.

Then a Facebook posting by my friend Carolyn Lester changed my mind:

“It is not a matter of our fitness or unfitness; what we declare when we witness is the Word of another who never fails. That Word has as much authority on our weakest days as on our strongest; it is not a question of our own worthiness.” Vance Havner

This word by a Southern Baptist preacher struck me as so true that I decided to post both it and Blake’s beautiful prayer.  Because it is the prayer that is inspirational, even if Blake is not.  God can use broken vessels to accomplish beautiful purposes– like John Newton, who wrote the most loved of all Christian hymns, Amazing Grace.  He was also involved in enslaving Africans before, and for a while after, his spiritual conversion.

God’s word is pure.  It is true.  You will feel the truth of God when it’s spoken no matter how faulty the speaker may be, though it is sometimes difficult to look past the vessel of delivery.

I encourage you to look beyond the horrible wrongs that Blake did to see the beauty of this prayer for what it is, a prayer that reminds us that if we allow God to lead us, we may be blessed in ways so beyond our own vision and limitations that we could not have imagined how to ask for them. This prayer helps us to recognize that sometimes we need to be disturbed out of our comfort zones, to be shaken out of our usual patterns, to have our own boundaries challenged, and to open our spiritual eyes to the material world around us in order for us to see and be what God wants us to see and be. Allow the beautiful words of Francis Blake to bless your hearts, to broaden your horizons, to open you to the amazing breadth and depth of God’s boundless love for all of humanity and to give you the ability to dream larger and the strength to push on.

God’s truth will march on!  Maybe sometimes even through me…

If you’d like to comment on this post, please click the little balloon at the top of the post and you will see the comments section.  Contact me if you’d like to receive these weekly posts by email. Please know that I always wish for you to know the love of God and thereby be filled with peace, joy, and hope.

Faith’s X-Ray Vision

Wouldn’t you like to have x-ray vision like Superman?  I mean, you could see through things to find stuff that you lost, and you could avoid people you didn’t want to see without opening your door.  Of course, you would need to be like Superman and not use your super power for any kind of nefarious purpose.  Yeah, right.  Maybe that’s why God didn’t give us that capability.  On the other hand, if we all had x-ray vision, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it?

As powerful as Superman’s x-ray vision is, it is not as powerful as God’s vision.  Superman can see through things–God sees into the heart.  When the prophet Samuel was assigned to choose among Jesse’s sons who would be the next King of Israel, Samuel assumed the choice would be Eliab, the handsomest, eldest, and the tallest of the boys.  He would not have chosen David, the youngest and smallest, if God had not whispered in his ear:  “I don’t see mortals the way you see them–I look at their hearts and not on their outward appearance.” (See 1 Samuel 16:1-13)

God’s ability to see into our hearts is even more compelling than Dr. King’s admonition that we are to measure people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  God sees even beyond the character we show to the world.  God sees through to our hearts, with the authority that only God holds, as the one who knows us completely, and who knows who we were intended to be.

And God wants those of us who believe to see the world through God’s eyes.  God calls us to be ambassadors for Christ in the world, and that means we need to see things as God sees them so we can properly represent God in the world. (See 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21)  Whew!  That’s a pretty tall order.  If our job is to try to see the world around us as God sees it, we have to learn how to see beyond the physical appearance of things. We need to see into the hearts of people and into the hearts of the situations that we face. We have to understand God, somewhat, in order to do that, don’t you think?  And it takes faith. That’s what we are to use, a kind of x-ray vision that comes through faith in God.

When we look at others through faith’s x-ray vision, we don’t see color, race, nationalities, cultures…all those divisions that the world creates among God’s people.  We instead see the beloved children of God, a beautiful rainbow of diversity designed according to God’s amazing creativity. When we look through faith’s x-ray vision, we no longer see different religions, just children who’re struggling in their own different ways and cultures to understand God.

When we understand that all of this earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, we  no longer see people coming from Mexico as illegal aliens or people trying to take away our jobs.  We instead see a people who are trying to make a living for themselves, and we see that there is plenty of land between these two countries with more than enough resources for all of us.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is  a better way to allocate the resources so that all can do well– and we understand that we need to help others see that.

Through faith, we no longer see children who are brutal gang members and who learn evil as fodder for our prison systems, but we see them instead as children who have themselves been brutalized by poverty and strife and abuse, with no one to help them through it.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is a way to reach them with the love of God, and we know that if we work at reconciling them to their true natures, we can save them.

Through faith, instead of seeing people with different political agendas as enemies or opponents against whom we must fight because they don’t want the same things we want, we see a people who have different views, some of which may be legitimate.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we take the first step to reconcile, to mend fences and begin real conversations to work for what is best for all.

Through faith, instead of seeing people who are poor as people who don’t know how to take care of themselves, people who are dependent on others and who drain our resources, we see poverty as the problem to address, and not the people.  We see a broken system that protects the haves who want to hang onto what they have and who think they need more than they do. As Ambassadors for Christ,  we know it is our job to help the world understand how to better share the abundantly plentiful natural resources that God has given to all of us.

With faith’s x-ray vision, maybe we can become more like Superman! Or better yet, more like God.

 

 

 

 

Where We Come In

It seems to me that reports about horrible atrocities committed by humans against humans in our country have been peculiarly abundant over the past few months.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean the U.S. is not a great place to live compared to many other countries, especially those places where brutal war and corruption are commonplace.  One of the good things to know is that atrocities still make the news here, which means they are not common. So in a round about way these reports help us know that we are pretty well off.

The three recent big ones–the horrible shooting of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown Connecticut in December, the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April killing 6 people and injuring 264, and the discovery of three young girls held in brutal captivity for over 10 years–are enough to make anyone with a heart shudder and cry. Add to that the numerous other smaller crimes, such as the police officer who was brutally shot down when he walked up to a car that he had pulled over, and the 5 year old who accidentally shot his two year old sister with a “kiddie” gun given to him by his parents. I’m not sure which I consider the most egregious, making a “kiddie” gun or loading it and giving it to a 5 year old …. both are horrific to me.

Doesn’t all this just make you just want to holler! While hollering does help relieve our frustration and anger, it doesn’t do much to help the situation.

One of the things that really touched me was when one of the teachers in Newtown told the children that they had to hide because there was a bad guy out there and they had to wait until the good guys came. She knew the good guys were coming, it was just a matter of time.  She knew that whoever was shooting would not be allowed to continue it without someone stepping up to stop the madness.

That’s the good thing about our country–we will not let the madness continue. And the good guys will come.  Like those policemen who rescued so many of the children in Newtown, like those folks in the Boston bombings who ran to help the injured instead of running away to save themselves, and like Charles Ramsey, who responded to calls of help and broke through the door, ending a decade of abuse for three young women.  The good guys will come.

Most of us who are followers of Christ, no matter what form that following may take, consider ourselves to be the good guys. (I’d like to say all of us, but I can’t be sure of that!)  It doesn’t matter whether we’re Roman Catholics or Non-denominational, whether we’re Episcopal or Pentecostals, whether we’re Baptist or simply believers who are “spiritual but not religious.”  We all consider ourselves to be the good guys.  And if we are, we must wrestle with where we are to come in.  What do we do as the “good guys” to make ourselves known? When do we don our “white hats” (a metaphor I don’t like, but it makes the point), and take actions to deal with such troubling situations?

I know some of us will always help out with a hand out, some will serve as mentors and helpers and others will be kind to anyone who is in trouble. But is this kind of help enough?  When we find ourselves faced with atrocities like the ones we’re seeing too much of lately, we need to ask the harder, deeper questions to determine what in our society might be contributing to the situation.  We need to address the structural causes, such as the need for more research and funding to support mental health; dealing honestly and intentionally with the negative image of our nation and our nation’s predominant faith, Christianity, that is held in the minds of so many people in other countries, especially “third world” nations; and deciding whether our country’s founders intended to protect the “right” of people to keep and carry the kind of  semi-automatic weapons that cause such mass destruction. These are the bigger issues, the foundational issues we need to address if we are to make this country even better than it already is.

Our job as Christians is to try to see the world around us through God’s eyes.  When we do, we will always look for the underlying causes of evil in this world, we will always seek more justice and righteousness and we will always be led by love and grace. And we will  act–we will come in–to deal with the situation.  If we really are the good guys….

 

 

 

Where Deep Calls to Deep

I just finished reading Maya Angelou’s beautiful and thought-provoking poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.”  It touched me deeply. She read it on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, June 26, 1995,  I am sad to say that I had not read it before…. I found it the other day quite by accident.  I was researching a bit on a concept for a sermon, and searched  the phrase “where we come in,” just to see if there were others who had used this as a title in anything– something I do sometimes just to find out what’s out there.  This phrase is not in her poem at all, but it is closely enough related to the phrase repeated in her poem, “when we come to it,” that Google picked it up.

Her poem took me somewhere deep, a place to which I love to go but don’t seem to get to often enough.  It’s the place I seek when I turn my thoughts to sermon writing; a place that if I haven’t got there, I don’t feel prepared to speak.  It’s the place I hope to help others find when I speak and write.

I remember the first time I found that place, deep within, long before I ever felt the call to ministry. I wrote a couple of notes to myself then because I wanted to remember how I felt. I’ve kept these notes for more than 35 years:

I feel like beautiful feelings

Like writing love music

Conducting a symphony orchestra

Painting a sunset

Singing a sweet sad song

Like crying

Like hugging

Like loving

Like caressing a loved ones’ cheek with mine

Like sharing a warm feeling

Like smiling from deep within.

When it comes it makes me want to

Make earrings out of something

Make poetry out of thoughts

Put some of me down on paper.

 I’m sharing this with you now (although I have second thoughts about the “make earrings” part!)  because this place, deep within, is the place where I believe our inward spirituality connects to God.  Psalm 42:7 describes the feeling:  “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” Howard Thurman, the great spiritual leader and former Dean of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel, described a moment in his ordination when he felt “the heavens opened and the spirit descended like a dove.” Then he wrote:  “Ever since, when it seems that I am deserted by the voice that called me forth, I know that if I can find my way back to that moment, the clouds will lift and the path before me will once again be clear and beckoning.”  With Head and Heart, p. 58.

We all need to find that deep place within where God’s creative love breaks in on us and refreshes our souls. To me, when I’m not there, I’m just skimming on the surface of life, distracted by the many things around me that always seem to need my attention. We need to escape periodically from our everyday-life-management stuff so that we can tend to our spiritual lives, our inner beings, the deep place in which we find our true selves and hear God’s desires.

Getting there requires space for quiet and peace, personal time not distracted by other needs.  Getting there requires prayer and personal meditation. Some may need direction from spiritual leaders or teachers. Some can get there with a favorite bible verse or song. We all need to get there, whatever it may take, because that is where our direction can be found– not in the things of this world, but in the secret places of our hearts, where deep calls to deep. In that place we are refurbished. That’s where we share the joy of love with the One who created us out of love and for love, and we receive direction on how we are to share that love in the time that has been given to us.

Maya Angelou’s beautiful poem struck me so deeply because she lifts up the great paradox of humanity–our ability to evoke such great harm and so many awful disasters in this world, yet at the same time our ability to share such great, selfless and healing love. In this age of information when we are bombarded by the news of atrocities like those three young girls who were kidnapped and held in brutal captivity for a decade, the lethal bombing in Boston or the children being mowed down in Newtown Connecticut, we need to be reminded that there is also great love being shared.   We need to be reminded of the power of people like Mother Teresa, Hellen Keller, Mahatma Ghandi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr.,  and the millions of heroes and sheroes who constantly pour out God’s love for others through their kind actions.

When we come to that “brave and startling” truth that we have the power to fashion this world to be a better place, my prayer is that we will choose love as our creative blueprint. The kind of love that we need in order to fashion the world into a place where God’s kingdom will be seen here, as it is in heaven, is found in that place in our souls where “deep calls to deep.” If you’ve ever been there, you will feel the need to go back. If you’ve never been there, you should work on finding the way.